Writing about the Powered by Plants Vegan RAGBRAI Cycling Team has inspired me to step up my transition to being vegan.
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I’d started the transition in 2016, when my doctor wanted to put me on a statin drug for high cholesterol — without first suggesting non-medication options — and I said no. Contrary to the philosophy of our country’s medical and pharmaceutical industry, I don’t believe in taking drugs or having operations for conditions I can address by changing my lifestyle. That, coupled with my fear of stroke and heart attack and a video documenting the inhumane treatment of commercial dairy cows, made me take action: I would forsake my love of tripling the amount of cheese in every dish, using whipping cream in my morning coffee, and adding pork, namely bacon or ham hocks, for flavor whenever possible. I gave up dairy and pork and red meat, bought an exercise bike and used it 45 minutes a day, 5 or 6 times a week, with the rule being I could watch Netflix only when I was on it.
My total cholesterol dropped 59 points while my “bad” cholesterol (LDL) dropped 55 points. As an added bonus, I lost weight. I felt great and when I didn’t eat poultry, I felt even better.
So why not become vegan now, especially since stress, travel, and eating whatever I can find nearby has resulted in my falling off the almost-vegan wagon, unhealthy food choices and weight gain? That would get me back on track. And why not write about how to do it, since a reader had emailed me for help?
I reached out to Bridget Saffold. Saffold has worked at MercyOne in Waterloo since 2009 as an LPN, then an RN, and a clinic coordinator, where she spent two years getting bariatric surgeon Dr. Moiz Dawood’s clinic accredited. In July, she fully transitioned to a supervisory role, where she manages clinical and administrative operations for nine doctors and about 12 staff members in the urology clinic and general surgery departments, while also wrapping up on her practicum for master’s in nursing and public health.
But more relevant to my question, she is passionate about diabetes prevention, diagnosis and management. On Sept. 10, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Waterloo Center for the Arts, her nonprofit will host Cedar Valley Focus on Diabetes, which includes free screenings and resources.
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According to the American Diabetes Association, 9.9% of adult Iowans have been diagnosed with diabetes; another 2.9% have it but don’t know it. And more than a third of adults have prediabetes.
Medical expenses for adult Iowans diagnosed with diabetes were around $2 billion in 2017. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, risk of early death is 60% higher for adults with diabetes than those without, and those with diabetes have a higher risk of serious health complications: heart disease, stroke, amputation, kidney failure and blindness.
Vegan diet can help prevent diseases — but only if done right
Though not a dietitian, Saffold shared her opinion resulting from her experience as a health professional and her father’s diabetes: Her professional experience includes 10 years with a kidney specialist with a large portion of patients whose kidney failures were due to diabetes; and her personal experiences with her father’s long-term diabetes, which led to kidney failure, dialysis, toe amputation, infection, heart disease, and early death. “If he had cared or understood and learned back then” about diabetes prevention and management, Saffold said, “he likely could still be here right now.”
When it comes to food, Saffold feels that the important thing is to eat healthy, which means choosing the right foods, such as healthy greens and other vegetables, fruit and lean meats. “If you’re not making the right meat choices, you’re looking at this added saturated fat, which adds to the bad cholesterol, which is the LDL, which is the true problem,” Saffold said. “Those saturated fats, you know, you gain weight, you can have added cholesterol in your arteries and your veins, which can cause heart disease and makes you actually insulin resistant. So even if your body is making insulin, your body can’t use the insulin properly because of the excess fat in your body.”
It also means eating food in the right portions: “We are overeaters largely because we eat because we see it. We don’t eat because we’re hungry.”
So, yes, Saffold feels that being vegan can help prevent diabetes and promote healthy eating. But, done incorrectly, it can introduce other problems. “There are nutrients in meat that your body needs that sometimes, when you choose a diet that eliminates that, you have to start thinking about, ‘How can I supplement that?’” Saffold said. “‘Am I going to supplement it with the right thing? Am I going to get the right nuts or beans or whatever to make sure I get the protein that I need?’ Protein is the foundation of what our bodies are built on. Your heart and your muscles and all your organs in your body, they need that protein.”
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Then there are vitamins, like B12 and D, and calcium and more that are essential for your body as well. And processed foods, even if they are vegan, are unhealthy. “So you still have to kind of really plan those things out,” Saffold said. “You have to think about, ‘What choices am I going to make to supplement what I’m eliminating?’”
A dietitian’s opinion on vegan eating
Lindsay Schwartz has been a registered dietitian nutritionist — which means she completed a four-year undergraduate dietetic program and completed an internship that included rotations in different types of dietetics and completion of at least 1,200 hours of supervised practice before passing an intensive exam — in Des Moines since 2018.
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She shares Saffold’s concerns and does not promote veganism — or any way of eating— as the solution for everyone. Though she is vegan and offers vegan (and vegetarian) nutrition, she doesn’t force that upon others. In fact, she said, if someone comes to her stating they want to become vegan, she treats them like any other client. They have to complete a 60-minute initial session and a nutrition assessment, the point of which is to help Schwartz to better understand their relationship with food, why they want what they want, what they want to achieve, and if the desired change is introducing or exacerbating any eating disorders, be it the ones many are familiar with, like bulimia and anorexia, or those less obvious, such as binge eating, emotional eating, and orthorexia.
For some people who may have an eating disorder, to put additional restrictions on food choices “leads to obsessive thinking,” Schwartz said, “and it takes over their life.” Thus, a recommended approach for that person will be different than that for someone without an eating disorder. There is not one diet solution that fits everyone.
If you’ve decided becoming vegan is the best choice that you want to pursue, Schwartz offered the following suggestions:
- Moving to veganism doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation, and it doesn’t need to happen overnight. You can take time to transition, and your transition doesn’t have to be perfect. Go at your own pace and make changes that feel good to you and will be sustainable.
Vegan Dishes by Chef Lauren Montelbano of The Vibrant Veg
- If you take out the animal products, you’ve got to replace them with an equivalent, not only to ensure you are getting the right nutrients or enough nutrients or being fueled enough — which is crucial — but also to prevent feeling deprived. It’s important to do a little research to figure out how you will fulfill those needs.
- If becoming vegan is a drastic change — say, moving from a meat-based diet to a vegan or plant-based one — it is important to seek out some kind of support. This could be through the help of a health professional, such as a dietitian, or obtaining evidence-based information. “Vegan for Life” is a book written by two experienced vegan dietitians that provides the basics of vegan nutrition with evidence-based recommendations.
- It is totally possible to get enough protein on a vegan diet. A general rule of thumb is to incorporate at least a serving of legumes — and different ones — at each meal, and then you’ll be getting extra protein from the different types of food.
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- It’s not necessary to calculate and track nutrition using numbers and calculators, which can be problematic for some. Instead, a plate diagram of what your plate might look like visually can be an easier and more intuitive way of eating.
While writing this column, I had a few “aha” revelations about:
- The severity of diabetes and the need to be vigilant in preventing it, instead of assuming it will never be a problem just because current glucose or A1C levels show it isn’t right now.
- The importance of protein, and active planning to get the required amount of it, along with other vitamins and nutrients.
- The fact that it’s not necessary to use spreadsheets to track my food intake against calculated nutrition needs — I was completely unaware of Schwartz’s much-simpler plate diagram and legume-serving recommendation.
One thing I’ve learned from my elimination of dairy and red meat that will be applicable to becoming vegan is simple recipes with few ingredients and few spices, making them bland and boring, do not satisfy my food cravings for what I gave up. For those like me, they will love food such as that offered by Des Moines’ Veggie Thumper vegan food bus and cookbooks such as Rachel Walker’s “The Big V.”
Rachelle Chase is an opinion columnist at the Des Moines Register. To be clear, this column shares opinions and is informational only and does not constitute any professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Follow Rachelle at facebook.com/rachelle.chase.author or on Twitter @Rachelle_Chase.